Constellations and consternations

OrionDating back 6000 years to some of the earliest records of human civilization, cultures around the world gave name to constellations of stars in the sky. Many of these are still used by modern cultures to describe star patterns.

At one point these star patterns were considered truly divine representations of gods, goddesses or creatures that figured in the all-important mythology of people seeking cultural narrative.

Of all the constellations there is probably none more potentially significant, universal or transferable than that of Orion. The pattern of stars in the constellation Orion can be seen around the world. With its “belt” of stars across the center of the constellation, and arms and legs extended, Orion lends itself to all manner of interpretation.

For example, In ancient Egypt this constellation was known as Osiris, a character who upon being killed by an evil brother rose again to live immortal among the stars. That story hews closely to the character of Jesus Christ, who the Bible says was betrayed by one of his brother disciples only to rise again and live on it heaven.

Universal convergence

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Orion_(best_currently_available_version_-_2014)It is an interesting thing to consider that so many heritages seem to converge in symbolic ways. Yet there is also supposedly an advanced worldview that dismisses the constellations as having any real divine significance. Modern culture has largely dismissed the heritage of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Asian or Scandinavian gods as “pagan” religions.

At least part of the reason we no longer abide by constellations as gods is that we recognize that constellations are not at all what they seem to the human eye. They do not exist on some flat or equal plane in space. They certainly don’t hang or conveniently travel across the so-called “dome” of heaven.

Bigger pictures

Space is an eternal, infinite place. The stars we see above our heads are literally billions of miles apart. They only appear to be fixed in space and time because our comprehension from this pinprick of a planet makes it hard if not  impossible to perceive constellations as anything other than an absolute truth. Of course many people like the predictability and familiarity of the Big Dipper hanging in the night sky. It is recognizable, constant and real.

Yet the Big Dipper is not a “thing”. It is nothing but our imaginations at work trying to find symbolism and constancy in the universe. Those stars in the Big Dipper are so far apart no human being could traverse them in a million lifetimes.

Human awareness

Orion_constelation_PP3_map_PLFor a long time in history the stars in the Big Dipper and Orion and Cygnus and hundreds of other constellations played an important role in human understanding of the universe. At the time when constellations such as Orion were recorded by early humans on rock face carvings 36 to 38,000 years ago, science was obviously not yet evolved enough to determine the real position of earth in time and space.

So we went with what we knew, and it served the human race well to establish guidelines for behavior based on ethical and moral parables in which the gods depicted in constellations sometimes played a part. They were there for everyone to see, after all. There was no escaping the gaze and wonder of gods staring down at us from above.

A single star

Eventually that notion of god above congealed into a singular deity called God or Yahweh or Jehovah. Even that singular god shares divinity with other religions such as the Muslim faith, whose early heroes include some of the same characters as the Bible. These were scriptural constellations of a sort. They share the same patterns and in some cases, the same values or attributes.

For some people, those scriptural constellations are quite literal in their conception and their place in history. For those believers, faith is fixed in the sky or the mind much like a constellation. It gives them assurance that their faith is anchored in the foundations of the universe. Their god still hangs above and their Bible or Koran is the constellation of wisdom. It shall not be moved. For those believers, accepting anything other than a literal interpretation of truth causes much consternation.

What good are they? 

It requires so much thinking to conceive the stars outside their constellations. They seem so unanchored and random in that mode. What good are stars to us if they just hang out there in the universe and do not reflect the patterns we impose on them to make ourselves feel relevant and fixed in the center of the universe?

There are people whose conception of the Bible is so literal they cannot accept what science has to say about the universe in contrast to what their religion tells them is true. They would rather believe in the fixed constellation of truth handed them by literalism than to contend with the messy, miraculous truth of life in a universe evolved from chaos and subject to laws of gravity, time and evolution that transcend the narrow worldview of constellations and consternations.

Fears and grace

Because what it all comes down to is the fear that God will not love us if we open our minds to the truth. But the gods of constellations seem to have departed once the real kingdom of God here on earth was revealed. The greatest constellation of all is love. It is what drives us to appreciate the grace of our existence in such a universe. We don’t need a pattern of stars in the sky or an outmoded take on the bible that contradicts itself in its supposed literalism and inerrancy.

You can feel free to live, to move around and find truth in the organic symbolism of scripture and not get tied into a harmful mythology that says outmoded laws and wrathful gods rule our world. We’re supposed to be brighter than that. Even Orion can tell you that.

Living in a world of redirected aggression

IMG_0169One of the interesting features of animal behavior is a phenomenon called redirected aggression. We see it in nature, which we shall soon explain. But we also see it in our cherished pets such as cats and dogs. 

Some people like to refer to their pets as “family,” and certainly our pets become reflections of the environment in which they live. Some break the house rules by exhibiting bad behaviors in response to anxiety or stress.

Pet owners struggle to understand these behaviors. Most are simply a response to tensions in the household. Animals like to “know the rules” and actually get nervous, scared or angry when their owners or other creatures in the household refuse to give them respect or clear directions.

There’s a lesson in that for human beings because we’re not so far removed from our evolutionary history as some people would like us to believe.

Avid birdwatchers often witness behavior in wild birds that shows how redirected aggression manifests in the avian population. If a bird is confronted by a presence in their environment that makes them uncomfortable, nervous or threatened, they will actually engage in behaviors that look like they’re feeding or cleaning their bills when in fact that are simply wicking off nervousness or anxiety.

This behavior has an evolutionary purpose in that it mimics normal behaviors while giving the bird an opportunity to truly assess the perceived threat. Often birds are torn between the instinct to fly away or else stay and try to protect their nest, mate or young.

So much of human behavior results from similar perceptions of anxious situations. Everything from real physical threats (as in a dangerous neighborhood) to social or work pressures that make people anxious or unable to wick off immediate stress can result in redirected aggression in the human species.

Only humans are even more creative in their expression of redirected aggression. More and more we see tattoos on the arms and bodies of professional athletes. Their “tats” are a form of redirected aggression. The punishment their minds and bodies take from the sport in which they engage are often too much for any individual to bear. Those tattoos are as such a creative cry for help in the face of the pressures of stardom and so much attention.

Same goes with piercings and other forms of human adornment. Warrior or tribal societies have long engaged in extreme distortions and disfigurement of the human body as an expression of social status, but also a bold statement about the tension between fight or flight. It is no coincidence that youthful rites of passage often involve some sort of mark of change or adoption of a sign of maturity. For some cultures that means scars or tattoos. For others it is simply growing a beard (playoff beards?).

In all cases the human species is giving off signs that there is a tension between the current and future self.

It happens in human religions as well. Religion is, in a strange way, the most common form of redirected aggression. There is a passive/aggressive component to every brand of faith. In Christianity it is a tight balance between Old Testament genocide versus New Testament theology that says “Love your enemies.” The faith is therefore torn between these two extremes, alternately sharpening its swords and turning them into ploughshares.

There is a cost to dealing with such tension. Believers find themselves stuck in a fight or flight mode, alternately wanting to defend the faith and yet follow the dictums of Jesus in which we are told to “turn the other cheek” and give up the cloaks on our back to any who would challenge us for them.

We are like birds on a branch staring down an intruder as the instinct to fly away and avoid a confrontation drives us to distraction. We wipe our bills nervously on the branch in an attempt to show in some instinctual way that we’re not really scared.

237b66cd98bed0d150c7f0536b749a57_650x But we’re also like cats or dogs, lashing out at our enemies even when they are not the original threat. We’re constantly redirecting our aggression and our desires in attempt to behave like good religious believers. Yet the facts show that the population of the states in the Bible Belt is one of the greatest users of pornography in all the nation. The perceived piousness of a strict church is much too much tension for the average horny male to sustain. They redirect their sexual aggression into a seemingly benign pose and hope never to be discovered.

We see the same thing with repressive preachers who turn out to be adulterers or gay like the people they most like to accuse and persecute for their sins. It’s all redirected aggression.

That’s the world we live in. It causes hypocrisy at so many levels, be they political, religious or civic. If we all just understood our animal natures a little better, and then accepted the fact that our inner animal is giving off signals of distress, we might be better at finding honest solutions and responses to our most pressing problems.

After all, even God seems to have expressed a bit of redirected aggression over time. His bargain with Satan in the persecution of Job comes to mind. So does his negotiation with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. These stories indicate that aggressive tendencies need to be understood in all their subtleties and gravity in order to be controlled or avoided.

Otherwise it’s all fire and brimstone, lies and manipulations. Living in a world of redirected aggression is simply not much fun. But tattoos are, because they venture into the realm of the taboo where we all reside in quivering wonder as to whether we are actually creative or the product of an environment where no one can be honest with each other. So we try to wear or feelings and instincts on our sleeves. And use any means we can to get there.

It’s Deuteronomy versus Sharia law in a battle of ideologies

PaversSitting at a Starbucks while working on a client assignment, I noticed that a woman at the other end of the table seemed to writing something, or at least editing.

Respecting her obvious need to concentrate, I avoided engaging her in conversation. Finally she sat back and sighed a bit while sipping whatever drink it was that fueled her.

“Are you a writer?” I asked.

She replied, “In a way. I’m working on my dissertation.”

“About what?”

“The Book of Deuteronomy,” she replied. Then she went on to explain that she already possesses two Master’s Degrees in theology. This was work for her doctorate.

I told her I’d love to read her dissertation because I’m interested in all things theological. She promised to send it along and took my email address.

Deuteronomy revisited

In the meantime it struck me that it would be good to read the book of Deuteronomy again. The last time I’d read it was during a Bible in 90 Days adventure at our former church. Dozens of people signed up to read 12 pages of the Bible every day. That brings you through to the finish in 90 days.

I know. It doesn’t sound possible or probable. Seems like there are a lot more pages in the Bible than that.

Well, the book of Deuteronomy does not disappoint in its richness or its imagery. It is a book of directions and laws passed down from God to the people. In biblical history it represents that portion of time when those who’d wandered in the desert were now going to be blessed with their own lands. God was going to deliver on that promise.

But the promise comes with a few commitments and commandments. God wants his people to separate themselves from all the traditions and ways of the peoples occupying the lands he has promised his Chosen.

Clean slates

Well, if you’ve read any of the Old Testament, you know where this line of reasoning is about to head. God wants a clean slate. “But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them––the Hittites and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites––just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.”––Deuteronomy 10: 16-18.

As well all know, that constitutes genocide in the name of the Lord. And it rather makes you wonder, if the Jewish people have any sense of history at all, why they should be surprised that history provided a brutal payback when the German Holocaust rolled around.

Acceptable acts

The answer to that form of quid pro quo thinking is that genocide is no longer acceptable under any circumstances. Which means we must ask whether genocide ever was an acceptable act on behalf of God.

Because we know that King David had it in his heart to build a temple to the Lord. Solomon wanted to follow through on his father’s promise: 1 Kings 5:3 “You know that because of the wars waged against my father David from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies under his feet.”

Well, that was the justification given at the time. But we should also remember that God had a little direct discussion with David before he died. And God told David that he was unfit to build a temple because he had too much blood on his hands. That’s right. God told David he was a little too good at his job of war and genocide.

According to Deuteronomy, God had some funny rules as to who could be included in the kingdom and how they were to be consecrated and purified through the laws of God.

It takes balls to be with God

For example, no one with crushed testicles or a severed penis was to be admitted into the presence of God. Yet David seemed a little too ballsy for the Lord at times. He stole Uriah’s wife by sending him off to war to be killed.

So there’s a strange dynamic we’re supposed to derive from Deuteronomy. It’s all about achieving some sort of balance between taking action in the name of God and yet remain humble and consecrated when success is achieved. God is show to be a jealous God, one who does not want even a trace of other “gods” to remain among his people.

Slaves to biblical law

And speaking of people, God lays downs some laws in Deuteronomy that would not exactly fly in a modern era democracy. In fact we’ve fought civil wars over the issue of slavery, yet Deuteronomy treats slavery as a commonplace dynamic of society.

It also treats women as property, especially in the event that female captives are taken during war. “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God turns them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house a full months, mourning for her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you are not satisfied with her, you shall let her go free and not sell her for money. You must not treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her. ” ––Deuteronomy 21: 10-14

Christian nation

Well, Holy Moses, isn’t that a sweet little story for modern Christianity to consider?  Because it raises some pretty crazy questions here in America. As in, if the United States was founded as a Christian nation, why did we dump slavery and grant women the right to vote or were or choose their own destiny.

The answer of course is that America was not founded strictly on Old Testament or New Testament principles. It does not abide by the laws of Deuteronomy any more than it plays literally by the rules of the New Testament.

Or if it does, then a certain patent form of revisionism had to occur. The outmoded and outdated laws in Deuteronomy and a host of other places in the Bible had to be discarded in order to form a republic under a Constitution that guaranteed equal rights for all its citizens. It also guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.

Obvious realities

But people who want the Bible to be the law of the land seem somehow to refuse this obvious reality that we no longer abide by many of the laws and traditions found in the Bible. It doesn’t take a dissertation to figure that out.

Take this example if you don’t believe that’s true. In a section titled “Rebellious Children” the book of Deuteronomy issues some harsh advice on how to deal with a child that does not want to listen to his or her parents. “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of our is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.”

Now it could be that the rebellious son actually stands for something more than a belligerent kid. It could be that there’s a metaphor at work here. God and Jesus like to play at that level, using individuals to communicate broader principles.

But that’s not really the context here. In Deuteronomy, God is laying out specific laws by which his people are supposed to behave. So the context here really is literal. If a kid screws up, we’re supposed to kill him.

Sanctity of life

So much for the morality or immorality of the death penalty. And what about the supposed ‘sanctity of life’ that so many Christians like to brag about? Is all that supposed to be tossed down the slippery slope of Deuteronomy?

Recently Pope Francis issued a statement about the Bible that should clear up much of the confusion about which Old Testament and New Testament laws we should abide by. He said, “If laws don’t lead to Jesus, they are obsolete.”

That includes laws against homosexuality and gay marriage, which fortunately are being struck down by civil society as an abomination against equal rights in America. It may take the Catholic Church a few more years to come around to that complete understanding of biblical law, and a few million conservative evangelicals as well, but the Pope is right. In many places, Deuteronomy and it laws are often effectively wrong.

Diss or dissertation

That’s the closest most of us need to come to reading a dissertation on Deuteronomy. The slaughter and abuses it advocates against other people, along with the view that other human beings are property, have long been considered outdated by modern society.

We can hope and pray that society will continue to recognize that much of the Bible is outmoded when it comes to establishing laws for any republic. Otherwise we are playing the same ugly game as conservative Muslims who want to invoke Shariah law wherever their faith can be imposed.

And there you have it, in a nutshell. The hopeful difference between an enlightened faith and one that is simply murderous by nature.

Revisiting biblical dietary laws and other anachronisms of scripture

Dr. GottFor years I’ve kept a simple news clipping published in the Daily Herald, a traditional newspaper in Arlington Heights, Illinois, where I worked for 7 years.

The clipping featured a short column by Dr. Peter Gott, a physician whose column on health was syndicated all across the country.

A reader had written Dr. Gott with the following question: “Based on the dietary laws in the Bible, my wife believes that it is unhealthy to eat pork and shellfish. This is causing quite a disagreement. Can you tell us whether pork is less healthful than any other meat and whether shellfish is less healthful than any other seafood.”

Dr. Gott replied most simply, telling his reader:

“In interpreting biblical laws, it is important to put them into perspective. You have to remember that they were the products of a nonscientific age, long before infectious agents were even dreamed about. 

The Bible prohibited pork because pigs had a tendency to be infected with trichinosis, parasitic roundworms that could make people who ate undercooked pork susceptive to severe infections. Modern pork is largely free of such risks, therefore, its consumption is safe. Eating raw pork is a rarity, even though the meat is free of trichinosis. 

The same is true for shellfish, which centuries ago was a common cause of food poisoning. Today, however, commercial oyster and clam beds are regulated carefully by appropriate public health authorities, so these shellfish do not ordinarily carry anywhere near the risks posed by their ancient brethren.”

What an interesting choice of words to close his advice. “Ancient brethren.” It says a lot about the attitudes that lead people to take ancient aspects of the bible literally. Then they seek out people with similar attitudes and call them “brethren.”

Ancient laws

The Bible not only documents ancient dietary laws, but also lists warnings against contact with women who menstruate and homosexuals too.

We now understand the full biology of the female body. Back when the Bible was written, that was certainly not the case. Women were also discriminated against in civil and equal rights, treated as property and even murdered for infidelity. The patriarchal society from which the Bible emanated feared women’s bodies in ways that we no longer need in modern times. However there are still many men who do fear women. Some of those men hold positions of great power and still try to control what women can do in society, even to the point of legislating their personal and reproductive rights. But women aren’t buying it. 

Being gay is not a demonic issue

The same goes for homosexuality, which along with mental illness was viewed as a sign of an accursed condition like demon possession or a permanent state of sin. We now understand the brain chemistry of mental illness. Educated people no longer speak of mental illness in terms of demon-possession.

Education matters

Educated people also understand that homosexuality is not a “choice” but a rather common biological orientation estimated by many to constitute as much as 20% of the American population. Some experts place the figure lower, at 10% or so, while some like to believe that the homosexual population is relative miniscule, as low as 1-2%.

That would not reflect the seemingly panicked reaction many conservatives espouse on the prospects of gay marriage being legalized in many states across America. Fears over the so-called gay “agenda” also indicate that securing equal civil rights for gay people is considered anti-American and certainly anti-biblical.

Discriminating minds

But that old clipping by Dr. Peter Gott seems to counter the fears and anachronistic beliefs by which some people still choose to use as grounds for discrimination against all sorts of formerly mysterious aspects of human culture that are now better understood through science and medicine.

Getting past the fears and acknowledging the fact that the bible is no longer absolutely right about many topics is hard for people who equally fear the intellectual requirement to think about their faith and culture rather than live by terms that are black and white.

But as we learned from cultural wars over slavery, racism and women’s rights, society does not collapse when fearful attitudes are forsaken and replaced by practices and policies that are more enlightened, tolerant and civil.

In fact those are principles that Jesus would have liked just fine. He lived by them most certainly, and expects us to do the same.

What we can really learn from attempts to attack the President

By Christopher Cudworth

LincolnObama

Obama to Lincoln: “It’s a lot harder being President these days. People can’t be civil.”

So much of history depends on chance. Recently a man named Omar Gonzalez jumped the White House fence and entered the building. He was armed, but not with guns. The Las Vegas Review–– a media company based in the gambling mecca––carried the story online:

“President Barack Obama and his daughters had just left the White House by helicopter on Friday evening when the Secret Service says 42-year-old Omar J. Gonzalez scaled the fence, darting across the lawn and through the unlocked North Portico doors before officers finally tackled him.”

It’s only speculation to wonder what might have happened had Obama been home to encounter an intruder carrying a knife. Surely the fit and adroit President would not just have stood there and waited for an attack. They must train the President to protect himself in some ways? Yet even if the Secret Service does not provide such training, good old gut instincts would take over for Obama, a man young enough to stay fit playing sports on a regular (but not excessive) basis.

Suppose the intruder had stumbled onto Obama working at his desk. The two might have scuffled and knife or not, Obama likely could have overpowered the man eventually. There might have been blood spilled and shouts, whereupon the Secret Service would finally arrive and the intruder would indeed have been subdued.

If such personal heroics  had ensued, what would the reaction of the media have been? We might recall the coverage given to the incident in which George W. Bush reportedly gagged on a chunk of dry pretzel. The President almost succumbed to a salty snack. It made the headlines for sure.

But a President fighting off an intruder by his own power? That would have made major headlines. And had there been video released by the White House that showed the President in action saving his own life, such footage would go viral. Experts would scrutinize its verity. Ultimately someone would accuse the President of wagging the dog, trying to shore up his reputation as a tough guy in the latter stages of his presidency.

IMG_8609The conspiracy theories would have dominated coverage by Fox News especially. Already during Obama’s presidency the news network has demonstrated a major propensity to lead with specious questions about Benghazi and complaints about whether Obama actually deserved any credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

It is a unique point in American history when news media wielding the power and scope of Fox News invest so much time and effort digging into such non-stories, and presenting speculation as fact while simultaneously giving so much time and support to people whose ideologies serve as “real news” and “fair and balanced” ideas about issues such as global climate change or teaching religion public school classrooms.

Such topsy turvy “reporting” has created a climate in which it is suitable for even a Supreme Court Justice such as Antonin Scalia to spout the opinion (and it is his own) that the United States Constitution serves the purpose of religion over the rights of all others.

That’s where all this is going, and it has poisoned the flow of reason in public discourse. So much so that had an intruder reached President Obama, and had he fought for himself in the face of Secret Service failures, no one would have believed the event. Not completely.

PaversIt may be that the game is played both ways. As a result of so much falseness in the media, there is no doubt that Presidents long ago learned to play the media game to the point where Americans cannot really trust what anyone, not even the President, has to say about anything.

We’ve never gotten the full truth even about the Kennedy assassination back in 1963. Recent releases from the Kennedy library reveal that Jackie Kennedy Onassis believed the then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had motive to kill her husband and assume the Presidency.

That was Democrat vs. Democrat. Or was it really? Could a man with such bully motives and methods as LBJ truly be grouped with any particular political party? There were so many interests that wanted JFK dead it was truly no one man that did it. The mob or the CIA certainly had their reasons to participate (cooperate?) in such actions.

But that remains speculation until that day the one line of evidence is revealed that points a finger at the exact incident or moment where the motives and actions are revealed.

That’s why Fox News can get away with what it does these days. Because lacking hard evidence that such conspiracies actually do have consequence, and without proof that both liberal and conservative causes have the audacity to ignore reason and law in pursuit of power, the rest of us are left guessing about the truth.

Even our fullest sources of truth such as the Bible are subject to gross speculations and wild interpretations. Some of these are anachronistic in their literalism while others engage in flat-out denials of modern knowledge to the point of insincerity. Yet some 30% of Americans still believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and millions fall prey to ridiculous theories about the Rapture that the Bible itself clearly debunks as sinful and stupid to abide.

News outlets such as Fox know they can exploit and manipulate such naive and cynical, angry and feckless minds to their own advantage. It has occurred to such a degree that half the Fox audience would have questioned the verity of any report of a President defending himself while the other half might have welcomed a different, less positive outcome.

FlagWaiverHave you any doubt this is true, simply visit the websites where Obama-haters regularly reside. Try the Tea Party News Network for starters, whose very headlines contain a leading bias in many cases. Then witness the barely disguised racism in the commentary on those stories, and absorb the hatred for our current President. It would obviously not take much for a person driven by the hatred apparent in such places to take up arms and make a charge for the White House on his or her own.

Ask Gabby Giffords about how anger-driven violence can enter your life, changing it forever. And consider how other politicians fail to act even when challenged again and again by violent forces to legislate change in our nation.

What we can really learn from recent attempts to attack the President is that its hard to believe how far we’ve come from that day in 1963 when the nation and the world stood in shock at news that Kennedy had been assassinated. Those were not more innocent times, we all now know. Instead what we know now is that corrupt influences have become more bold and adept at the lies they are willing to tell and the acts they are willing to perpetrate in order to gain and maintain power.

Sometimes it only takes one man and one “lucky” shot at murder to change history. Abraham Lincoln fell to such a shooter, but it was an uncivil society that gave birth to his motives and the courage to act.

Because it is never just one man and one gun who does the killing. It is all of us, and how we abide by truth or accept something far less as fact. That’s the lesson we have long failed to learn.

Why great wealth does not always add up to great insight

Painting by Christopher Cudworth of Chicago skyline with peregrine falcon.

Painting by Christopher Cudworth of Chicago skyline with peregrine falcon.

As a very young artist I was fortunate to receive a series of commissions from a man who would go on to earn great wealth. At the time I met him, he was in the early throes of a vision that led to one of the top investment trust companies in America. A decade or more later he sold his firm to a larger entity for a profit of $400 million dollars.

For a short period of a couple years I worked for that company. That was a strange experience in some ways. The man who founded the company was also a zealous Christian fundamentalist. He formed several churches during his life. At times it was rumored that he wrote the sermons himself, critiquing the pastors he hired to deliver them.

With his growing wealth he accumulated a collection of some of the rarest bibles in the world. Then he built a bunker residence in western Michigan. If it weren’t for the fact that the man was quite sociable and publicly driven to convince the world that his visions were true, it might all seem rather like a Howard Hughes story.

Sadly, the man literally died of disease that hardened the flesh and organs of his body. His trust outlived him and is overseen by a team of trusted managers to provide for his wife and family.

So this is not to criticize the man personally. As stated, our relationship was an interesting one. At a time when I was no longer working for the company, he called me up for additional art commissions. He was thinking big as usual. “I want two 4′ X 4′ paintings of falcons for either end of my board room,” he told me. “I can hire you for $1500 or I can hire Robert Bateman (a famous wildlife painter) for $50,000. Do you want the job?”I took it, and hauled those paintings in for approval several times. He finally purchased them.

So I knew him well enough to at times discuss aspects of life and faith and success. During one of our transactions I asked for a little more money because I’d worked particularly hard on a painting of a bald eagle. I was 17 years old, and requested $120 for a painting upon which we had agreed on a price of $100. He pulled out his Bible and gave a short sermon backed by scripture. The point he was trying to make is that a ‘bargain is a bargain.’ Yet he still payed me the extra $20.

PaversHe was certainly a man of convictions. As his wealth grew so did his ability to focus on theological issues. He developed his own theory about the coming Rapture. It was based on a series of convoluted scriptural references that was essentially debunked by fellow Rapture conspiracists who debate such things with avid furor.

So interesting that it’s all based on the original conjecture of a host of believers convinced that the Bible holds patent clues as the End of Time. One particular 1800s American preacher named John Darby particularly popularized the myth of The Rapture. From there it spread into a myriad of strangely fantastical versions of Armageddon based on bible takings from the books of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.

But the Rapture was not all that fascinated my wealthy friend. He funded a search for Noah’s Ark and provided money to the leading creationists of the early 80s.

DSCN1904All this literalism and reverse literalism made for a complex vision of a man who was obviously smart enough to become one of the wealthier men in America. Yet when I stood in our office one day talking toe to toe with one of the leading creationists of the day, he could provide no answers to the simplest questions of biology or geology. All it took to confound the man about the age of the earth was a simple illustration of the theory of plate tectonics. He was instantly at a loss to reconcile such hard evidence of times past.

That’s because creationism is essentially a science of denial, not one of discovery. It depends on anachronism for its verity. It has no forward progress in its makeup. No new knowledge can come from it. It is nothing more than a lockbox for a literalistic worldview of the origins of the human race and the universe.

At the same time it is something of a Pandora’s Box, because creationism, upon its release in the world, knows no limits in its mad schemes to rule the worldview of all those who encounter it. Creationists work hard to promote their very limited perspectives on history. They depend on props like a literal world flood to explain geology, and Noah’s Ark and the character of Adam to describe all the types of animals in the world.

Yet they cannot explain the complex fact that blind salamanders in Tennessee caves somehow migrated out of their native environment all the way across an ocean to reside in an ark for forty days and forty nights. Then they swam and crawled across deserts (with no working eyes!) to get back to their dark, watery caves below the earth. There are millions of creatures just like this, that had no way to navigate or manage a trip across thousands of miles of ocean just to get to an ark.

IMG_0169Yet that is what the man with all the wealth in the world wanted to have everyone else believe. He put a ton of dough behind the idea, and might certainly have helped fund projects like the insane Creation Museum in Kentucky if he felt that it might convince a few more people that the Bible was literally, infallibly correct.

We’re stuck with these inane beliefs because people with low levels of insight on scripture and science refuse to give in lest they find their entire worldview is a house of cards. And so it is that between 30% and 50% of Americans who hold these views are still trying to jam prayer into public schools, and force textbooks to present a Christian form of creationism as possible fact.

The great wealth of Christian knowledge lies not in the sick obsession with proving an anachronistic view that even Jesus would have laughed at. After all, Jesus taught using highly organic, highly symbolic parables to present spiritual concepts. He lampooned the Pharisees and others who sought to turn scripture into rigid laws and a worldview that punished people for believing otherwise.

And Jesus insisted to the wealthiest men of his time that the best thing they could do to enter the kingdom of heaven was to relinquish their wealth and seek sources of greater insight. Because when you have enough money to buy what you want to believe, you tend to ignore and resist everything else. And that’s the problem in America right now on many sides of the aisle.

The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age

The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age

Tied to the whipping post

By Christopher Cudworth

dscn9203.jpgThe Sirius XM Classic Rock channel blaring through my speakers last night featured a song by the Allman Brothers titled “Whipping Post.” That song is technically about the songwriter’s mistreatment by a woman who is unfaithful to the point of emotional pain. He draws the comparison between repeated “whippings” by his gal to being flogged by a whip.

That metaphorical use of a whipping post surely grabs one attention. The idea of being tied up and beaten bloody is not an appetizing thought. In fact the Starz cable series The Outlander recently featured a scene in which a Scottish rebel is beaten bloody to the point of flesh flying away from his back. The beating is administered by a sadistic British officer trying to exact punishment and extract confession of disloyalty to the English king.

It doesn’t work. The Scottish lad refuses to emit a cry even when his back is lacerated to strips and flaps of flesh hanging from his back.

In a telling moment during the episode a British officer responsible for the brutal whipping admits that he lost control both in the moment and in his overall life. His resent for being sent to Scotland––where he considers the people “savages”––give hims a sense of jjustification for administering punishment to whomever he pleases. He also admits it pleases him to do so. “He was my masterpiece,” the officer said of his flaying brutality.

The same sort of angry isolation from reality takes over another character in the HBO Series “Rome,” in which Emperor Octavius clenches the hand of his servant, soon to be bride. As she winces in pain, he coos to her that he enjoys giving others pain. “It gives me sexual pleasure,” he murmurs. She marries the man anyway. His power is too attractive to ignore.

Example of Christ

In the bible we encounter a man who refuses to give in to flogging and crucifixion. Even knowing that he faced likely torture, humiliation and death, the man we know as Jesus held his tongue except to affirm that his mission was pure.

These extremes in punishment turn our stomachs and at times force us to turn our eyes. Yet for purposes of edification the next movie I plan to watch is “12 Years a Slave.” The plot deals with slavery, injustice and freedom. But the violence will surely illustrate the extremes to which people seeking to force and control the behavior of others will go.

Modern punishments

All these elements of punishment, pain and abuse seem to be coming together in the public eye of late. The video of the NFL playing knocking his companion unconscious with a blow of the fist has set off debate about domestic violence. Then another football player was called to account for whipping his child with a switch to the point where the bruise marks were visibly evident on the child’s skin.

I have been that child. My mother used to use a switch on us for discipline. She used a brush as well when the switch was not handy. I’m pretty sure she did not enjoy whipping us kids for being bad. She was trying to keep unruly kids in line. That was the philosophy in those days.

Corporal punishment

But I’m not so sure about the teachers at our public school who used paddles to spank kids who were deemed to be misbehaving. I had my pants dropped in the hallway and was spanked on my bare buttocks by a first grade teacher. That scared the hell out of me, but it did not really teach me what I’d done wrong, or how. That was left for me to figure out on my own. All I knew at the time was that I’d crossed some line and that she owned all the authority.

Authority played a big role in those days. You were taught to mind authority no matter what. My father did not like being questioned or ignored, especially when it came to matters of authority. He punished us physically, but not always for reasons that were discernible.

I watched him thrash my two brothers in the kitchen of our house. The beating reduced me to painful tears because I loved my brothers. That instance set up an emotional foundation that could not be easily erased. The following week at school when my best friend got paddled for something he did on the playground, I collapsed in tears while clinging to my first grade teacher’s side. She questioned me at that moment why I was so upset about my friend being hit. She sensed there was something more going on. But that did not mean there was any reconciliation.

The Fighter

The trauma of those beatings turned me into a fighter. I fought my way through sixth grade in fact. Fought my way through a line of adversaries all the way to the neighborhood bully who finally challenged me to a fight to be held in the deep end of the country club pool which whose water was emptied for the winter.

An older friend heard me bragging about the upcoming fight and told me that he was going to go in his place. He met up with the bully who pulled a knife and threatened to stab my friend. Fortunately he knocked the knife from his hand and proceeded to pummel the kid’s face until blood stained the entire front of my friend’s shirt.

When he came back from the fight he grabbed me by the collar and told me, “No more fighting for you.” And with one or two exceptions, after that I was cured of the need to fight.

The Athlete

I funneled my deep-seated anger into sports instead. The rage served me well in competitive situations. But deep down there was a conflicting emotional base that was fragile and fearful. There was no real self confidence or (God Forbid) self esteem behind the bravado and aggression.

Coaches loved to tap that aggression and on many occasions it would work in the short term. But real success comes from confidence built on hard work and affirmation. It’s possible to guide and correct behavior without beating it into someone. One can even tolerate pain and suffering in the name of a cause without having your teeth kicked in to make you want to give your all.

The insane levels to which some coaches, leaders and parents feel they need to go to motivate their charges is evidenced by this quick anecdote told to me in person by former pro football player and Ohio Buckeye Doug Plank. “I followed Jack Lambert at Ohio State and he was one of the hardest hitting players ever to go through that system. I was middle linebacker too, and one day I hit a guy so hard it knocked me unconscious. I was lying there and when I woke up Coach Woody Hayes had his face right in mine, and he screamed, ‘YOU SHOULD HAVE HIT HIM HARDER!”

That kind of punishment is what the NFLis essentially based upon as a tradition. Hundreds of players suffer debilitating lifelong illnesses and conditions due to their time on the field. Some suffered multiple or untreated concussions. In some cases like David Duerson and Junior Seau, the brain injuries have led to mental illness and ultimate suicide.

Michael Vick

Who can forget the very public disgracing of the NFL player indicted for the cruel hobby of dog fighting? His career was rehabilitated in the eyes of many. To others he remains the symbol or everything that is wrong with pro sports. The power of money and performance forgives all.

The NFL has admitted at some level there is a cost to playing pro football. The league gave up millions in a settlement to its former players. It was an admission that the physical and mental punishment of competing at that level with giants on the field and human beings inside those highly trained bodies is a formula for destruction.

Yet the paying public continues to eat it up.  There’s all that weekly excitement over “big hits” and taking out the quarterback. At times even the ugly injuries that stem from pro sports are played in endless loops. Broken legs make good copy.

The Arena

It’s really not much different that the crowd at a public event like gladiatorial contests or the public whipping of a criminal. People with a lust for violence and action will get it vicariously if they can’t mete is out on their own. Never mind that the very lives of many NFL players are being destroyed by a violent sport, and that kids all the way down to five years old are at risk of those same injuries. It’s copycat violence. “Go make us proud, son. Knock him on his ass.”

Of course all sports have an element of risk. But when the issue of that risk is not only ignored but obscured in the name of power, money and entertainment, there is a risk to all of society absorbing that violence.

Role Models

The fact that we also look to pro athletes as role models doubles that gamble. Their personal failures represent a downward swirling whirlpool of perception for society. It’s depressing when our heroes fail. Yet we discard them and move on to someone else for our heroics. We spank them publicly and expect them to behave again. When they don’t, they are disowned. Banished from our thoughts. They’re really products of an entire system that squeezes athletes for their talents while essentially failing them as human beings.

Consider the perversion of pro sports as a meat market. The idea that athletes can be ‘traded’ or ‘sold’ is essentially demeaning. They are commodities, and little more. This dehumanizing aspect of professional sports is only counteracted by the fact that so many pro athletes experience the same flaws as the rest of us.

This includes beating their kids, making dogs fight each other and abusing their wives. Welcome to America, fellas. That’s how we’ve always done it. Your lives are just a little more public. So we must face the fact that the very acts of violence, crime and abuse committed by pro athletes are simply responses to the lack of perspective that life offers them.

Need for change 

So where is the potential for change going to come from? Certainly not the NFL, which Yet perceives itself as a tornado sweeping away all other sports in its path. The aggressive marketing of pro football now takes place 12 months a year. The league acts like a spoiled child, always demanding attention.

And therein lies both the irony and the solution of all this public whipping and whether it’s right or wrong to spoil the child. It’s as if we’re all tied to the whipping post and the NFL is doing the whipping. We’re actually afraid to pull back or cry out for fear of being the one called too weak to survive the competition of life, or worse, to be branded “un-American” for not loving “America’s Game.” Why else would there be such an anti-soccer backlash, which calls itself the “world’s game” if those who jingoistically brand American football as the better sport?

Those dealing out the punishment simply refuse to back off for fear of losing their grip like the British officer forced to relish his punishment in order to survive the ordeal of his own disenfranchisement and loneliness.

Spare the Rod? 

Sadly, people even recruit the biblical reference to Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child to justify the administration of violence from the earliest age. We hear people using that one line from the bible as if it were sufficient to justify all sorts of punishment. Because if it’s okay to beat a child with a switch, it must be okay to bash the heads of those we oppose. We see evidence of this smashmouth mentality everywhere in society, especially in politics where politicians without conscience bark about the finer points of human values while trying to beat the piss out of their political adversaries.

Punishers and the punished

It’s a horrific cycle of punishers and the punished that we’ve created. Those who pull away or try to lend rational perspective to the issue of institutionalized violence are branded as ‘weak’ in their constitution or ‘too liberal’ in their parenting ands tastes in public media, sports and religion.

So we blithely pass gun laws that make it legal to pack weapons nearly everywhere we go.  We root for sports that destroy the very lives of the athletes who play them and then wonder why those athletes cannot behave like saints in the cathedral of sports.

We’re all tied to the whipping post unless someone has the courage to stand up and say “Stop, that’s enough.”

Scars and forgiveness

Those of us who lived that reality in a very physical way know that the scars of punishment without rational foundation take a long time to heal. It takes real work and possibly the heaviest dose of forgiveness possible to work past the bitterness and anger that takes hold in the heart of those punished.

We also recognize those violent tendencies in others more readily than most. We refuse to vote for those with an angry bent and barely disguised desire for absolute control. Those are the most dangerous people of all. Those who refuse even to be questioned for the motivations behind their behavior, such as the NFL, the cigarette companies or the polluters of our rivers and streams. Politicians who war profiteer and angry talk show hosts who profit from fomenting dissent without providing solutions. The NRA with its All Guns At All Costs Philosophy, and the very rich who begrudge the working class even the respect for its labor.

These are the people who want you tied to the whipping post. Jesus Christ warned us that this was the real decay of society. It was not the so-called rabble of the streets whose sins harmed almost no one, and whose constitutions and orientations would come to be better understood in the true light of day, thanks to history, biology and genetics.

They are not the enemy here. They are not the ones tying the arms of the innocent to the whipping post. The lash you feel on your back is the force of authority without cause. That is the lesson of the modern conundrum. How to let the weak be heard, and not be afraid to listen.

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